Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Son of the She-Wolf






For the readers who don’t know, during the Fascist era, Italian boys ages six to eight were enlisted in an organization called the “Children of the She-Wolf,” from Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who according to the myth were suckled by a she-wolf. 
Italian artist Hugo Pratt, the creator of Corto Maltese, was one of them, and followed his father to Africa, as a very young member of the colonial police. 
The link between the Italian Right and the ink heroes like Corto Maltese and Tex Willer (the most widely read comics in the world), created by Italian artists, is explored very well by a book by Roberto Alfatti Appetiti, All’armi siam fumetti (To arms! We’re comics!), edited by Italian writer Miro Renzaglia and published by I Libri de "Il Fondo." The book is a collection of articles and interviews published  by Alfatti Appetiti between 2006 and 2010. As far as I know, this aspect of the Italian graphic novels production was never dealt with before, by a non-Italian author. I hope you'll find the article as interesting as I did. 
I'd like to thank J.J.P. for reviewing the English text. Your comments will be very appreciated.
Thank you, 
L. Pavese





       

Hugo Pratt. The Child of the She-Wolf with the suitcase always packed.
By Roberto Alfatti Appetiti
Translated by L. Pavese


Flatterers in life and braggarts after death. Every great man attracts to himself this invisible yet threatening army. They are all ready to swear: I was there! Friends (presumed), eyewitnesses (by hearsay), marginal figures who reinvent themselves as main characters. Shadows in search of reflected light. Professional biographers. Therefore, when I heard that a new book about Hugo Pratt was on its way, I thought: another one? Is there anything else to know about the creator of Corto Maltese that hasn’t already been amply told or sounded out in those so-called in-depth media programs or, moreover, anything that hasn’t already been told by Pratt himself, with his extraordinary affable character?
The answer, after reading Con Hugo (With Hugo, published by Marsilio) is yes; because the author is Silvina Pratt, the daughter of the master. Silvina has been translating his work since the age of eighteen. Not for her father’s favoritism, but because certain expressions in Venetian dialect would have been incomprehensible to anyone else. Because the book is an authentic witness account from someone who knew (very well) and loved (very much) the other Hugo Pratt, the man.
Hugo?  “One who leaves, one belongs  to others - literally, one might say, since the copyright of his work  was taken away from his children - , nevertheless, someone who, after all, will always be your parent.
“Loving, for sure, but also restless. Brusque, but his cheerfulness could be as infectious as his sadness. A person of bursting vitality, alternating with sudden gloom.
“With him it was like being on a roller-coaster. With his steely blue eyes, as sharp as chisels, he was able to make anyone lower theirs. He was aware of his power over others - writes Silvina - and he was not happy about it; actually, at times, he was furious and sad, because of it.”
Pratt was less slender and not as elegant as Corto Maltese, his “spiritual” alter-ego; that paper child of his, whom he had sent out in the world at the beginning of the 20th century; but, if it’s  possible, he was even more charismatic.







“ On the left palm of his hand,” wrote Alberto Ongaro in the preface of the book, talking about Corto, “he still bears the scar that marks a false luck line. In reality, he hasn’t had much luck. The things that he conquers slip away through his fingers, so regularly, that one can’t help but suspect that Corto is the one who lets them slip away. Truly, the only thing that matters to him is to play a part in the world of adventure.” And what could be a better definition for Hugo Pratt.  Always with his suitcase packed, running from himself, allergic to ties; not at all venal and, basically, enamored only of adventure.
“My father was always ready to embellish the truth. He always wanted to transform and correct everything. His name, his past, his family. Reality must have looked too dull to him.”
Too often Pratt was distant; when he was far away, but also when he was around but immersed in his dreams. Even in the family home of Malamocco, a fishing village at the tip of the Lido of Venice, he could sit for hours watching the play of the waves breaking on the rocks. To the point that Silvina wrote: “The most painful memory is his absence.”
But there is no trace of bitterness towards Hugo, as she always called him. Never dad. “No one of his children ever called him dad. I tried when I was about four or five. He didn’t say a word, but he jumped around as he had received an electric shock.  
“For a child of the she-wolf like him, the nephew of one of the founders of the Fascist party of Venice, it had probably been better to toughen up very early. Hugo was an only child, and he felt great admiration for the men in his family. As a teenage soldier,  he left for the war in Africa and witnessed his father Rolando, a Fascist, being imprisoned and later die, sick, in a prisoners of war camp under the African sun.”
Silvina also tells of his grandmother Lina, Hugo’s mother: “She preserved many mementos of “her Africa,” of “her Italy.” A black and white picture of her husband in uniform hung to be admired above her bed.  After all, even little Hugo, who had been enlisted by his father in the colonial police at the age of fourteen, would be totally fascinated by those Italian uniforms.






“It was the military that gave him his forma mentis.” explains Silvina. “ Those years spent in a miserable and dirty camp. At about seven in the evening, the African trumpets would sound. While the colors of the French flag were being lowered from the mast, he felt like crying. He would have liked to see the green, on that flag, instead of that blue.”
In any case, Hugo felt no yearning for war. “It destroyed my family, how could I love it?” Recounted Pratt himself. “I saw my mother’s pain. I lost friends, like Sandro Gerardi, who had sided with the Fascists, and was killed by the partisans.
“The war forced me to mature and to understand what’s behind ideologies and politics, the nonsense of patriotism and imperialism.”
With the end of hostilities, “finally peace came,” recalled Pratt with ferocious irony. “And with the new generation came mandatory political engagement. The word adventure was banned. It had never been well received anyway, either by Catholic or by Socialist culture. After all, adventure is an element of disturbance of the family and of work. It brings confusion and disorder. The adventurer, like Corto Maltese, is a stateless individualist; he lacks the sense of the collective.
“One had to brush up his Marx and his Engels - two authors who bored me immediately. I was accused of hedonism, of being childish, of being a Fascist; but above all of escapism, of being pointless. Like all those writers that I loved, and I was supposed to forget. But I could not do that, and I realized that there was a lot of other people who read the authors in question. Eventually, we came to identify ourselves as an élite whose aim was to be pointless.”
But that label of Fascist had stuck. Not that he cared.
Back in Italy from Africa, Hugo joined the Repubblica Sociale. As a kid, he witnessed the epic deeds of the X M.A.S. - and he even considered joining it, in the “Lupo” battalion, just as an adventure - as well as the the anti-German resistance and the arrival of the Allies. Then he had followed his true vocation: the art of the comics.
At the young age of eighteen, Hugo Pratt was among the founders of the Asso di Picche (the Ace of Spades). At the age of twenty-two he was in Argentina, where he would remain for thirteen years, cooperating with - among others - Hector G. Oesterheld, the future writer of the science fiction work, El Eternauta.






In Argentina he met the very young Anne Frognier, of Belgian origin, whom he married. Anne was the mother of Silvina and the inspiration for Pratt’s Anna della Giungla, Anne of the Jungle, the main character of the serial graphic novel by the same name.
Afterwards, a second marriage with Gucky Wogerer, the mother of Lucas and Marina. Then Brazil, San Paolo, London, the return to Italy and the cooperation with the Corriere dei Piccoli; and at the end of 1960’s the move to Paris, after the closure of Sgt. Kirk, the magazine that he had started in 1967 with the Genoese Florenzo Ivaldi, on which he had published the Argentine work, the series Gli Scorpioni del Deserto, set in Africa during WWII, and the first story of Corto Maltese, Una Ballata del Mare Salato, A Ballad of the Salt Sea.
On the very popular French weekly comics magazine Pif Gadget, Pratt would publish twenty-one short stories, but the cooperation was interrupted suddenly in 1973 because, writes Silvina, “the libertarian tendencies of my father did not coincide with the directives that steered the magazine towards Communist obedience.”
Hugo preferred to quit Pif and to accept the proposal of the competition, Casterman, the editor of Hergé and the weekly TinTin (for more information on Hergé, take a look at this post on this blog. Thanks).
Finally success arrived. The legend of Corto Maltese grew from France as well as many other places, and even Hugo Pratt himself became a charismatic figure. Milo Manara, who was a friend and a student of the Venetian artist, transformed him into the main character of the serial H.P. e Giuseppe Bergman.
Manara had this to say about Pratt: “His evocative capacity is so enthralling that his continuous search for graphic essentiality actually adds to the drawing, instead of taking away from it. From one of Pratt’s pictures, one can actually establish the time of day of the action, the intensity of the light, the force of the sun, if it was hot or cold.”







The last Corto’s story, Mu, is from 1988. “Corto would not die,” said Pratt. “He would just go away. Because in a world where everything is electronics, engineered and industrialized, there’s no room for a man like Corto Maltese.” A bit like Pratt did, when in the mid 1980’s he retired to Grandvaux, near Lausanne, in a house large enough to house his vast library, with a view on Lake Geneva.
Shortly before dying, Hugo Pratt, with colorist Patrizia Zanotti, founded the publishing house Lizard, which publishes all the works of the master, including non-fiction works about him, Corto Maltese and the places dear to Pratt’s literature.
Luckily, so far we have been spared a movie. A while ago, a film version of Corto Maltese was proposed to Renato Salvatores, the author of Mediterraneo, who declined.
“I said no,” said the Neapolitan director, “because the producer wanted to turn Corto Maltese into a sort of Indiana Jones. I’d rather let him sail on that thin line of ink, and dream about a movie written by Hugo Pratt and directed by Sergio Leone. Maybe those two are already working on it, somewhere.” 









    

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